Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Hoops Preview: Preparing to Gather

By Jonathan Lowe

I know that college football is all the rage across campus at the moment. However, the clock continues to tick toward the tipoff to the 2013-2014 college hoops season. As always, the early part of this sport's campaign throws some very intriguing non-conference matchups our way, along with some that might surprise as we go.

Last year, I looked into most of the traditional-style early season tournaments and produced some headlines I found intriguing. Well, no better time to build on tradition than now. Over the next few weeks, I'll peek into these "destination" events, where obtaining a trophy in November (or December) could be the first step to raising the trophy come April.

So, where better to start than the earliest of the brackets? Nowhere, really. It's actually a pretty good place to start ... (ahem) ... as I was saying:

Puerto Rico Tip-Off (Nov. 21, 22, & 24)

Obvious Team to Watch — The Michigan Wolverines were a mere 6 points short of an NCAA title five months ago. There is a lot of talent coming back from that national runner-up squad. There's also a ton of talent that moved on up to the NBA, namely Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway, Jr. With only one junior and one senior on the roster, the team will still have to rely on youth to keep them in contender mode. But John Beilein has shown that he can mold young minds pretty quickly.

Under the Radar Team to Watch — If there has been a phrase to trademark for Florida State under coach Leonard Hamilton, it has to be "Dare to Overachieve." Four of the last five seasons, the Seminoles have won at least 10 or more ACC conference games. But last season was a dip in the trend. Even with Michael Snaer, the most recent version of "Mr. Clutch," on the roster, this group was extremely young. This season, the ratio of under-to-upperclassmen is 3:1. How fast these kids buy into Hamilton's defensive tenacity will tell us a lot about the upcoming season.

Best Early Matchup — Long Beach State vs. Michigan. I was tempted to go with Florida State and VCU, due to the fascinating contrast of tempo and defensive styles. The contrast that I find intriguing in my choice leans toward experience. I already alluded to the two upperclassmen for the Wolverines. The 49ers tout four underclassmen, making this a fairly tested squad. And don't give the Maize and Blue an automatic edge on the bench. Dan Monson might not have lived up to expectations at Minnesota, but he practically rebuilt the foundation for Gonzaga's program.

Best Potential Final — VCU vs. Georgetown. I'll say right now that I would really like to see if the Rams can get their revenge on Michigan for carving them like an Easter ham this past Spring. Some are saying that this could be Shaka Smart's most talented team yet, and that might mean bad news for the Eastern Seaboard. One such opponent from just up the road could be the Hoyas. John Thompson III doesn't have Otto Porter to carry the load, but most of the supporting cast will be back, hoping to create their own legacies. Plus, the chess match of the Princeton offense against the HAVOC defense should be one to watch.

Charleston Classic (Nov. 21, 22, & 24)

Obvious Team to Watch — There might be more recognizable names in this field, but the best team very well could be New Mexico. Despite the loss of star guard Tony Snell, the reigning Mountain West champs bring back the other foursome from the starting lineup, including guard Kendall Williams. The bigger question concerns the team's new head coach. Can Craig Neal fill the shoes vacated by the departed Steve Alford? This will be Neal's chance to shine after having Alford's back for so long.

Under the Radar Team to Watch — I live in Upper Midwest, so, thanks to the Big Ten Network, I get to catch a few games that feature squads from less than marquee schools. As last season came to a close, Iowa seemed to improve by the most leaps and bounds of any team in-conference. Right behind them was Nebraska. The Cornhuskers competed hard for first-year coach Tim Miles, beating tourney-bound Minnesota and possibly snatching the victory that may have kept Iowa OUT of the tournament. Now, with three seniors gone and only two on this squad, Miles hopes to stamp his seal on a program that could be trending upward if they can sneak in a win or two in South Carolina.

Best Early Matchup — Davidson vs. Georgia. Like Georgetown, Georgia bring back a lot of pieces from last year's team. And like Georgetown, Georgia will have to seek a new on-court presence to replace the impact of former star Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Someone will need to step up for coach Mark Fox to get off the 15-17 snide he's encountered the last two seasons. On the flip side, it seems that all the Wildcats do is find one player to fill the gap a former one has left behind. Bob McKillop has to replace the production of Jake Cohen, Nik Cochran, and J.P. Kuhlman. However, to a man that has made NIT or NCAA appearances in 8 of the last 12 seasons, turnover doesn't seem to be an issue.

Best Potential Final — Davidson vs. New Mexico. Don't adjust your screen settings. This could be your final in Charleston. I already discussed Georgia on the bottom half of the draw. Temple is in rebuilding mode after losing all but two players from last year's team (including dynamic scorer Khalif Wyatt). Clemson may still be trying to reconfigure themselves under fourth-year coach Brad Brownell. And that leaves the door wide open for the Wildcats.

On the top side of the bracket, Neal might be the freshest of the head coaches, but he's got the best assemblage of talent. Plus, he's been in the Alford coaching system for almost a decade. We'll just have to see what wrinkles the new coach can use to improve the talent on the floor.

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